Embrace the Thrill of the Ride

Photo by Matt Bowden on Unsplash

OK, so I’m really a hypocrite; I’m not too fond of rollercoasters. I visit theme parks for the air of frivolity and the funnel cakes, not for the thrill rides.

I’ve noticed, though, that sometimes our careers mimic the ups and downs of a rollercoaster. Some of us have big, scary rollercoaster careers that flip us upside down or travel underground, while others have a moderately safe little toddler coaster career with tiny, gradual bumps and a smooth track. But my point is that it’s rare for a career to be a continuous ascent in a single direction without a fall occurring somewhere in there.

What does a fall on the career coaster of life look like? It could be an unplanned termination, failure to get the promotion you expected, or a corporate merger that threatens your box on the org chart. It could be a troubled relationship with co-workers, abusive clients, or a glass ceiling. It could even be a wake-up call years into your career trek that helps you realize you don’t want to keep doing what you’ve been doing. The biggest falls are usually the ones we didn’t anticipate, and there is always a fear that we’re so far off track that we’re in danger of falling out of the car entirely.

But wait, those are just the falls. What about the turns and corkscrews? What about the boss who asks you to take on a different role than you usually do for the good of the company or the project? What about that layoff that forces you to get the first job you can find, whether it’s in your usual field or not? Or what about earning that shiny new degree only to realize you can’t find a related job in your locale? Well, these moves are sometimes the most exciting ones! You might have to scramble to regain your balance, and you might have to reskill, retool, and adjust, but these are the career changes that can create the biggest growth opportunities.

Here are my suggestions for learning to embrace the craziness and enjoy the ride:

  • Defy the line. Don’t think that a linear career is the only way to go; what fun would that be? Each year, new job types and titles are created. Many jobs advertised today didn’t exist ten years ago. As you gain experience in your job, you may decide to try on some of these cool new roles at the cost of your current career trajectory. That’s perfectly ok! You’re probably better acquainted with your interests and competencies than you were when you began your career. How many 18-year olds know themselves well enough to pick a career and stay with it happily and successfully for the next 50 years?!? We must normalize a career journey that meanders a bit.
  • It’s OK to move the goalpost. Many of us have goals. We aim to buy our first house by 25, become a manager by 30, a VP by 35, and own the company by 40 so that we can retire by 50. But modern careers don’t always work like that. We get discouraged and dejected if our goals don’t pan out on our (rather arbitrary) timeline. It’s important to be flexible in our goals; sure, we work towards them, but with so much out of our control, we have to be agile and reset our goals regularly as we move forward. Career detours that seem to threaten our accomplishment of these goals usually set us up for our next big career nexus, and we can miss those if we’re too goal-oriented to recognize them as opportunities.
  • Don’t pigeonhole yourself. If you only identify yourself as an employee who works at a specific organization, in a specific industry, or who has a specific title, then you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of stagnation. Be flexible to try on new roles and learn new skills to add value to your resume.
  • Mix it up. Volunteer for special projects or temporary assignments that help you grow your personal capabilities. If you’re usually a leader, try being a follower for a while. If you’re usually a follower, maybe try your skills as a project manager. Go TDY and mix it up with co-workers in different offices or on different continents. These short-term work situations push you to be adaptive.
  • Find your tribe outside of work. It can be fun to hang out with co-workers after hours, but it can feel lonely fast if you leave the organization and lose those connections. Make sure you have a support network that isn’t dependent on your employment situation. Family, mentors, and friends can help you make objective career decisions when your career seems to be going off the rails.
  • It all makes for a great story. Even the negative events in your career can make for a great story (or a cautionary tale!) later in life. Learn from each lesson and move on to the next thing with more experience and wisdom to show for it, and don’t panic if it’s not as straightforward as you thought it would be.

 Listen, my own career has been one heck of a ride so far. It took me 25 years to use my college degree in journalism and English in any meaningful way, and I’ve done everything from marketing to administration, to HR, to I.T., to contracts and pricing, and a whole lot of things in between. Those roles have prepared me to be a jill-of-all-trades, and each role always sets me up to be successful in the next stage of my career. I’ve had inspiring and encouraging managers, but I’ve also had weird career bumps that I never expected. I’m grateful for this crazy rollercoaster of a journey: twists, turns, and all.